If getting a 6-ounce perfume bottle through airport security seems impossible, imagine trying to bypass scanners with 18 monkeys strapped to your waist. In July 2010, one smuggler did just that, flying from Lima, Peru, to Mexico City, only to get busted after acting nervous during a random check, according to news reports.
If successful, he could have sold the monkeys for as much as $1,550 each (and turned a profit of more than $25,000), said the news reports. That’s because, for some people, it’s no longer enough to pick up an animal at the local pet shop. Exotic wildlife has become yet another status symbol—and one reason that illegal animal smuggling is on the rise, with one case weirder than the next.
Animal smuggling is a hideous and shadowy business. It’s also widespread—and lucrative: Freeland, an international organization fighting wildlife trafficking, estimates it at $10–$20 billion annually. In 2009, law enforcement officials recovered more than 18,500 live animals with an estimated value of $35 million—and that was just in Southeast Asia.
Thailand remains a key hub for traffickers, who use it as a gateway to China and other Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam. Freeland reported that between 2007 and 2008, undercover agents found brothels in Vietnam offering tiger and bear products to clients as sexual enhancers.
Rare animal parts are also coveted for traditional medicine. An 86-year-old Hmong-American woman who considers herself a shaman was convicted for smuggling more than 1,300 pieces of wildlife, including Asian elephant and clouded leopard parts, through Minneapolis–St. Paul International Airport in May 2009.
Of course, airports are often the scenes of the crime bust since security tends to be stricter than at car or ferry crossings. But some people still make it through. In one 2007 incident, a mother and daughter couldn’t resist bringing a pet from Thailand home to Washington state. So, according to news reports, they sedated a baby rhesus macaque and hid it under the daughter’s clothes—as if she were pregnant. They cleared security and were arrested only after bringing their “baby” to a Spokane-area mall and boasting about it.
Of course, seized animals are the more fortunate ones. They are typically transferred to zoos or rescue centers such as Monkey World, an English center that coordinates with governments worldwide and currently shelters more than 240 rescued and endangered primates.
Read on for more strange animal-smuggling incidents. And if you’d like to learn more about this crime and how to help combat it, check out organizations such as Monkey World, Freeland, and the World Wildlife Fund.
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